Bonnie Lorang Commentary: “Universal Service Lifeline Program”

For the past 25 years, the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Lifeline Program has helped provide millions of low-income Americans with affordable telephone service. Lifeline casts a safety net to make communications available for economically challenged subscribers. Discounted telephone rates for Lifeline consumers increase connectivity to families, communities, and services.
Just a few months ago, the FCC issued an Order expanding Lifeline eligibility. It outlined changes designed to curb what it calls the “waste, fraud and abuse” that threatens the program. It sets a parallel goal of improving the program’s effectiveness.
Nationally, the percentage of low-income households with phone service increased from 80% in 1985 to 92% last year. In 2011, fifteen thousand Montana telephone subscribers received Lifeline discounts on their telephone bills. Half of those resided in households located on Tribal Lands, where participants access telephone service for as little as a dollar a month.

The FCC has adopted uniform Lifeline eligibility criteria for all states. Participation can be income-based, with verification of a household income at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. For example, a family of four with an income less than approximately $23,000 may qualify.

Eligibility may also be determined by the subscriber’s participation in at least one of several federal assistance programs.

Under the “old” Lifeline Program, eligibility on non-Tribal Lands in Montana was limited to one criterion only: Medicaid participation. Now eligibility is much broader.

Subscribers are eligible if they participate one of many programs. These include Federal Public Housing Assistance or Section 8,National School Lunch Program; Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); Head Start; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or Food Stamps); Supplemental Security Income (SSI); Medicaid; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF); and BIA general assistance.

Many more Montanans will now qualify for a $9.25 discount on their local telephone bill because of the expanded eligibility.

One critical question is not yet resolved. While the FCC is committed to expanding Lifeline eligibility, it is also committed to reducing the Lifeline funds within discount program. It has set a savings target of $200 million for 2012. It also projects savings of up to $2 billion over the next three years. How is that possible?

The FCC revises the Lifeline program with a combination of increased administrative oversight and better efficiencies in program management. It envisions the creation of two National databases, which will be gate keepers for both eligibility and funding.

One database will ensure that only one telephone subscriber within a household or economic unit is participating in Lifeline. It will eliminate “duplicate support”, the funding of multiple discounts for subscribers within a single household.

A second data base will be created from Federal and State government data sources. It will enable automatic verification of initial and ongoing Lifeline eligibility. Increased oversight of eligibility reduces the potential for fraud and cuts red tape for consumers and telephone providers.

The FCC Order tees up the issue of broadband access for low income Americans. It proposes to use up to $25 million to test and to determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption among Lifeline consumers.

Lifeline revisions will be implemented between June 1st and August 1st. Montana telephone associations and companies are working closely with the Public Service Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services. Together, we are developing processes and procedures necessary to implement Lifeline program changes.

Low income telephone subscribers may be eligible for the $9.25 discount. They should contact their local telephone provider and/or their local public assistance office for Lifeline eligibility information.

Bonnie Lorang is the General Manager of MITS, Montana Independent Telecommunications Systems.

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